DIGITAL ILLITERACY? Or the Shift in Human Cognitive Styles?


We may becry the general loss of fundamental literacy skills, in referencing, research, critical writing and critical reading, that seems to be occurring as a result of the global digital transformation of human knowledge transmission and storage systems.

The movement away from books to hard-drives linked by software into systems of translative articulation, has necessarily entailed a substitution and displacement of emphasis away from critical conventional literacy skills toward greater Internet and computer technical skills.

But the move away from conventional forms of print-based literacy to forms of computer literacy linked to gaming, word processing, web-surfing and technical computer literacy seems as inevitable as it is probably historically and developmentally irreversible.

We can reference in the more gradual former transformation from oral-based primitive systems, which nonetheless provided frameworks for cultivation of unusual cognitive skills and styles relating to long-term memory for “singers of epic tails” and perhaps forms of cognitive integration not found but rarely in the modern world, toward increasingly “book-wormish” orientations of the lonely-writer in his writing garret.

We are moving from a print based erudition and mastery of a language like English (or any of the other world dominant languages) that largely defined a style pattern of a world civilization connected with its knowledge contexts in traditional forms of literature and oral tradition, toward a mastery of landscapes of a virtual world that is dynamically growing and changing from minute to minute and that is virtually unlimited and which only coincidentally maps to the real world.

But there remains perhaps another level of cognitive functioning in which different forms of literacy may come to play a critical part, and this relates to the reality testing or critical function to distinguish truth from the untrue, and the actual reality from the virtual reality. This is a kind of critical cognitive capacity that does not belong alone and only to digital literacy, but which has been evident in the influence of important tests upon the believe and behavior of many people.

It is the inability in such contexts to not be able to distinguish truth from fiction in the symbolic mediation function of means and alternative modalities of information transmission. There may be occurring in advanced digital literacy the critical incapacity to distinguish what is actual in the world unmediated by computing knowledge systems, and what is virtual and made real only through the mediation of such computing systems.

The rise of literacy of whatever functional forms and transformational effects of its embedding cognitively in the personality of the literate individual, has been the foundation in our shared history for the rise of public knowledge as a global secular worldview in which scientific factuality and rationality has played a critical role in the transformation of human systems.

At the same time, we can see in the symbolic reification of religious systems of belief and practice, expressed and justified primarily through religious texts, many of which are treated as sacred and thus above the world of humankind and beyond their capacity to adjudicate for veracity and superstition.

As a new form of digital electronic literacy may arise, particularly what we might call a form of long-distance “conversational” secondary literacy, there may be occasion to worry whether or not there are third party interests involved in the impersonal manipulation and systematic distortion of computer-based information to foster credibility and suspend systematically critical faculty.

We have only to look at the widespread influence of untestable and unproven conspiracy theories, largely the product of wild imaginations, to foster, encourage and thus create a widespread band-wagon movement that can become armed and dangerous as a mechanism of manipulation and narcissistic control.

Such a world can even take scientific worldview and received truth and distort it and discredit it to create plausible alternative counter-scientific versions of reality that are in the final analysis anti-scientific and ideologically closed and self-fulfilling.